The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is moving ahead with its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and Rural 5G Fund proceedings. The purpose of these programs is to encourage the development of infrastructure necessary within rural areas to ensure access to adequate broadband service.
The RDOF program will provide $20.4 billion in funding over a ten-year period to support broadband networks in rural communities across the country. This funding goes to service providers who agree to deploy infrastructure needed to offer broadband internet service to currently underserved areas at a fee and speeds comparable to the services provided in more urban areas. In essence, the RDOF acts as a means of subsidizing service providers, in order to have them provide broadband internet services to areas that they would not typically serve because there is not a business case for deployment from the provider's perspective. The FCC has designated underserved areas where service providers would be eligible for RDOF money should they wish to deploy broadband services in these areas. These areas are broken down by census tracts and a map of these areas can be found on the FCC’s website.
It should be noted that there is a bit of controversy over providers requesting to have areas in their service footprint removed from RDOF eligibility. One possible reason for why an internet service provider would want to remove areas within their service blueprint from RDOF eligibility is to avoid potential competitors, with RDOF funding, from moving into their territory. While keeping competition at bay is certainly good for business, it is bad for residents of these rural areas who will have no choice in broadband providers and could be forced to suffer with inadequate service and internet speeds, and higher costs.
To ensure broadband access is available to all and to bridge the digital divide, it is important to ensure that federal grant money is being distributed where needed. For this, a critical first step is to ensure accurate accounting and mapping of broadband service. For municipal officials, this means reviewing the maps provided by the FCC to see if your area is eligible for RDOF funding – if it is not, and your community has poor broadband, you need to review why your area isn’t eligible. With many working from home and attending school online because of the COVID-19 epidemic, the need for reliable high-speed internet has never been clearer, and now is the perfect time to assess the broadband needs of your community.
The Rural 5G Fund is a proposed program from the FCC that would dedicate $9 billion, disbursed over a ten-year period, to support 5G-capable mobile broadband networks in underserved areas. As proposed, the 5G Fund would operate similarly to the RDOF program but would be dedicated to 5G-capable broadband networks. The League will provide more information on the Rural 5G Fund once the FCC has taken further action to proceed with the program.
For more information on the RDOF program, you may wish to attend a webinar hosted by the FCC for state, local, and tribal officials on May 20, 2020. More information on the webinar can be found in the FCC’s public notice.
Contact: Frank Marshall, Esq., Associate General Counsel, FMarshall@njlm.org or 609-695-3481 x 137.